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Red-light camera shutdowns prompt traffic safety debate

Cities around the country that have pulled the plug on red-light cameras installed at intersections are placing their residents’ safety in jeopardy, a study released by a highway safety organization last week concluded.

The National Motorists Association has challenged the conclusions as misleading, however, and faulted the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which conducted the research, for not releasing its raw data.

The Virginia-based institute concluded that in cities that have switched off their cameras, the rate of fatal accidents resulting from drivers running red lights has soared 30 percent. The number of communities in the United States with red-light cameras went from a peak of 533 in 2012 down to 467 in 2015, the institute reported.

The IIHS website states that, as of August 2016, communities with red-light camera programs numbered only 430. A news release prepared by the IIHS attributes the decline to a minority of people who have vocally opposed the cameras.

Lawsuits filed by motorists and others have also had an effect on cities’ decisions about their red-light camera programs. Those complaints say many programs have been plagued by inaccuracies, safety issues, corruption and, in some cases, illegalities.

“We know we have a problem: people dying at signalized intersections because of people running red lights,” IIHS president Adrian Lund said in a prepared statement. “We know red-light cameras are part of the solution.”

The IIHS reported that in examining statistics from 14 cities that ended their camera programs between 2010 and 2014, researchers found an increase in fatal crashes of 30 percent, as well as 16 percent more fatal accidents of all kinds at signalized intersections.

The 16 percent comes out to 63 lives lost that could have been avoided had the cities not shut down their red-light cameras, the IIHS contends.

Shelia Dunn, communications director of the National Motorists Association, told AMI Newswire that the association “is categorically opposed to any photo enforcement camera scheme,” and she provided a statement from the association about the institute’s study.

“Their researchers award safety credit to red-light cameras based on the halo or spillover effect,” the association stated. “Essentially, if a city has red-light cameras at some intersections, IIHS credits the cameras for favorable safety numbers at all intersections throughout the city, cameras or no cameras. As statistical acrobatics go, this one is breathtaking.”

The association also points out that the number of fatal traffic accidents at intersections with signals is usually very low, meaning that the difference of just a few crashes between years can skew the percentages sharply.

“The IIHS doesn’t release their data,” the statement continues. “The information that forms the basis of these types of reports can’t be peer-reviewed, let alone replicated.”

In addition, the association’s statement disputes the idea that red-light camera programs have been shut down because of the concerns of a vocal minority of citizens. Over the past 25 years, 38 communities across the nation have placed their traffic-safety camera programs on the ballot, and 90 percent of them – 34 in all – opted to end the programs, the association reported.

The red-light camera debate has caught the attention of state lawmakers in Texas, where Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) has vowed to introduce legislation next year to require communities that want to set up or continue using red-light cameras to first hold a referendum to demonstrate a majority of citizens support the program.

“There may be some intersections where they have done some good,” Pickett told a Texas television station last month, “but I still believe that the decisions should have the support of the local community.”

Meanwhile, a legal action in Chicago that could eventually require that city to refund $200 million in fines and late charges paid by motorists nabbed by red-light cameras, prompted Cook County Clerk David Orr in July to condemn Chicago’s program.

“From its inception the city’s corrupt red-light camera program has operated as a predatory revenue-producing tool that has also served to fatten the pockets of the politically connected,” Orr said in a prepared statement.

He described the city’s red-light camera program as a cash cow that has forced scammed motorists to pay questionable fines and fees. “But it has been exposed, repeatedly, to be no more than a false god,” Orr said.

Both the American Automobile Association and the IIHS have argued that  camera programs should operate with transparency and that funds collected through automated fines for running red lights should be dedicated to traffic safety programs, as opposed to going to cities’ general funds. The AAA has also stated that cameras should be focused on intersections with a history of safety issues.

Generally, private companies that install and operate the cameras receive a cut of the proceeds from fines.

Although many studies affirm the value of red-light cameras in reducing right-angle collisions within intersections, a 2014 study by the Chicago Tribune found that the city’s camera program also led to a 22 percent increase in rear-end collisions at intersections.